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UH at 100

What’s next for Hawaii’s university?


(page 3 of 3)

Expect a continued move toward private sources of funding, including tuition hikes.

It’s not just research money that UH is chasing. McClain’s administration has been focusing on more private funding in general, a trend that’s been taking place since the mid-1990s. Many HONOLULU readers may remember UH as an almost absurdly cheap school to attend, but that won’t be true for much longer.

McClain explains the transition: “The model of this university, as recently as 20 years ago, was that we had lots of funding from general funds, we did not get to keep our tuition and our tuition was extremely low. In 1995, the state struck a deal with us that said, we’ll hold your funding at a fixed level and you can keep your tuition. It sounded like a good deal, but then, three years later, the state cut our funding by 20 percent, because the economy was really poor. Ever since then, we’ve been trying to focus more on the source of revenue that we control.”

In fact, UH’s non-state revenues—which include federal funds, tuition, sales and private giving—have grown from $310 million in 1997 to $681 million in 2007, and the strategic plan calls for that number to hit almost $1 billion by 2015.

Increasingly, UH will expect students to foot the bills. UH is now halfway through an aggressive six-year tuition hike schedule that will top out at $4,200 a semester, more than double the rate students were paying in 2005.

McClain characterizes the hikes as simply bringing rates in line with the national average for comparable public universities. But J.N. Musto, executive director of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, says the administration has lost sight of the university’s original mandate. “It was not a mistake that in the 1950s we created a university that had basically free tuition,” he says. “Anyone could go; tuition wasn’t an obstacle. It was to shift the social and economic order, to end the stratification of the population.”

“We’ve seen in recent years—since Dobelle and forward—this move towards a business model for higher education. They talk about customers, and use other very typical business terms, and that is not what a university is about. It’s not just about selling a product.”

Johnsrud counters that one of the goals of the strategic plan is to increase the disbursement of need-based Pell Grants by 5 percent per year. “In this six-year tuition schedule, we doubled tuition in the first three years, but we quadrupled financial aid,” she points out. “We made very deliberate choices to make sure that low-income students would not be shut out.”


"[UH Manoa] has been asked to be all things to all people.  We're going to have to focus a little more sharply in our second century."—UH president David McClain

Photo: Courtesy of University of Hawaii

Expect continued sparring between the governor and the Legislature over UH’s governance.

UH has enjoyed more autonomy over its affairs since 2000, thanks to a constitutional amendment passed by the state Legislature, and since former president Evan Dobelle’s ouster in 2004, one hardly hears a peep about how UH is run. Behind the scenes, though, the university is as much of a political football as ever. This time, there’s a fight brewing between the governor and the Legislature over who gets to decide the makeup of the Board of Regents, the governing body of the UH system.

Since 2006, Board of Regent nominees have been chosen by an advisory council designed to be nonpartisan, and a list of nominees forwarded to Gov. Linda Lingle for her selection.

Lingle appointed six new regents from the list earlier this year, but balked at filling the remaining six open seats, opting instead to hold over the existing regents indefinitely, including her former campaign advisor, Kitty Lagareta, who the state Senate had rejected in May for a new term.

Lingle’s office refused to clarify for us how long the holdovers might remain in office, but the matter is likely to end up in court sooner rather than later, says Sen. Norman Sakamoto, chair of the Senate Education Committee. “We’re probably going to take some legal action—we meaning individually myself and some others—because the governor is not abiding by the constitutional amendment. She went down part of the list, and then she stopped. It’s clearly flying in the face of the constitution.”

Former Gov. Ben Cayetano says he’s not surprised to see the advisory council become the focus of yet another power struggle, despite its intended purpose as a vehicle of reform. “It’s almost like the judicial selection commission,” he says. “You have the best of intentions, but just as the commission became politicized by people who are not elected and cannot be held accountable, so, too, will this new process.”


But don’t expect much over the next two years.

The past four years have, to a certain extent, felt like a reaction to Dobelle’s tumultuous tenure. McClain, in contrast, manages UH quietly, relying on delegation, incremental change and a focus on the fundamentals. No revolutionary sermons on the mount here, pushing visions of college towns and other brash new initiatives.

It’s almost as if the university is holding its breath, waiting to see how the next two years are going to play out. There’s a lot coming down the pike: The Board of Regents lineup is being disputed, McClain’s term comes to an end next summer, as does the faculty union’s six-year contract. Lingle will hand over the governor’s seat in 2010, just after UH West Oahu’s new campus is scheduled to open. Factor in the shaky economy, and it’s enough to make anyone think twice about making big steps. Musto, for example, says UHPA is proposing a two-year contract for the faculty, instead of the usual six.
“We need to find a way to get through the next two years, and then come back and take another look at things,” he says.

History will belong to the next crew in charge.                     


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Honolulu Magazine May 2018
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